Lessons from Steve Baker Following His Dreams to Open The Larder Bar and Grill

by David Niu on Aug 8, 2012 5:04:21 AM

When I met Steve Baker in Shanghai, he struck me as a gregarious, jocular, somewhat imposing figure (imagine Gordon Ramsey meets Brian Urlacher). So it was amusing to hear Steve recount that as a child, he was mesmerized by cooking shows and proclaimed to his mother that he wanted to be a chef when he grew up. Steve didn't disappoint and pursued his dream with vigor by winning cooking competitions and by working as a celebrated chef around the world before opening his first restaurant, Mesa Manifesto, in Shanghai.

Now Steve Baker is embarking on opening his second restaurant in Shanghai called The Larder Bar and Grill. I admit that I had no idea what a "larder" was, so it was refreshing when Steve discussed the concept behind his new establishment. Steve described a larder as similar to grandma's pantry with food, sauces, chutneys, etc. And when people come to The Larder Bar and Grill, he wants the vibe to be similar to if they came over to his house for dinner- warm, open kitchen, and dependably tasty.

At the same time, it's much easier to manage one's kitchen and keep it tidy and sanitary, but it's much riskier for a restaurant to have their kitchen, coffee, wine, chef's station all open for show to diners. And there's that old adage that goes something like, "If you have an enemy, wish upon them a restaurant."

Steve embraces these challenges and shared the best practices he's implemented to create not only a great restaurant but also a great business:

*Mandatory Daily and Weekly Huddles - The main way Steve Baker achieves a consistently great experience is by focusing on constant communication and training. Steve leverages the daily and weekly huddle technique that Verne Harnish espouses in Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. To get the ball rolling, Steve held weekly 1-on-1 mentoring meetings with his department heads to emphasize how important these meetings were. Initially, he encountered resistance since his Chinese staff were not familiar with this approach and his Western staff thought it was, quite frankly, a waste of time to hold all these meetings.

After six to nine months, Steve was able to establish a healthy daily and weekly meeting rhythm. However, it was not easy to get there, and Steve was the coach, cheerleader, and enforcer to ensure the organization would embrace these meetings. During these meetings, they discuss goals, competitions, and problems. The huddles plus the mentoring not only improved the organization's performance but also improved retention, which Steve saw as a tangible validation for his approach.

*Empowering Staff - Steve Baker is a strong proponent of empowering his team. For example, when the restaurant was new and it came to hiring and firing, his department heads would always come to him in a paralyzed state looking for approval and guidance. After continual training and 1-on-1's Steve pushed these critical decisions to the department heads who are closer to the issue. Today, Steve doesn't meet any candidates until they are in the final stage of the interview process. And if a staff member doesn't work out, the buck doesn't stop with Steve. The department head is responsible for documenting and letting the person go. It would have been easy for Steve to be a control freak, yet by empowering his team, the team is happier and more engaged which also enables Steve to focus on bigger picture issues.

*Train and Promote Within - I chuckled when I heard that Steve's #2 chef used to drive a taxi six years ago and that a supervisor used to wash dishes. But Steve was deadpan when recounting these promotions because he invests heavily in training and positions it as the pathway to promotion. He puts his money where his mouth is by seeking to train, groom, and promote internally first. I think this is another reason why their retention rate is better than the industry average.

*Reward Team versus Individuals - Oftentimes, Steve's restaurant hosts internal revenue goals. Instead of just incentivizing the servers if they hit the goal, Steve involves the entire department. He posts the targets where the entire department can see their goal and how they're progressing towards it. And if they hit the goal, everyone gets to share in the spoils of victory.


*Strategically Staggering Bonuses - In China, it's common practice that employees receive a Chinese New Year bonus before returning to their hometown to celebrate in February. However, Steve Baker noticed that many employees would take the bonus and then hop to a different job after Chinese New Year. To offset this, Steve provides them a portion of their bonus prior to Chinese New Year. Then he holds their annual performance review in March, when they return to receive another bonus plus any raise or promotion together, which seems much more natural and part and parcel of their review cycle.

*Market "Research" - As a restaurant guy, Steve market research is a solid night out with his management team. They'll visit competitors and review the service, product, menus, decor, etc. But when he does this, he takes only a couple people from the same department so that they're focused on competitive observation and avoids devolving into a social event if he invites too many people. So he'll go with his small team to one place for a starter, the another place for a main, and another place for dessert. It really gets the team fired up, and they leave with the attitude, "we can do better than that!" which they bring back to their coworkers.

*Attitude > Skills - This is an eternal debate - if one had to choose, and all things being equal, would one choose to hire someone with a better attitude but poorer skills or hire someone with better skills but poorer attitude. Steve said that he almost always prefers attitude over skill since he can train them up if they have a good attitude. This is particularly true when he hires for the entry to mid level roles and looks for the right body language, service ethics, and attitude. Yet he did caveat that if the role is more senior, then skills play a bigger role in the decision.

*Conclusion - It's always great to meet someone who is living his childhood dream like Steve Baker. But what was more impressive is the rigor (meetings, 1-on-1's, training) that he instills into his restaurant that blends with the artistry of creating tasty dishes and drinks. I believe it's this balanced approach that has made Steve so successful, especially as a husky Australian in Shanghai. Fittingly, as Steve loomed over me to shake my hand after the interview, he cracked a quick smile and was already set to jump into a 1-on-1 mentoring meeting.

*Follow @TINYhr on Twitter to get the latest insights and best practices from entrepreneurs as David continues his travels and interviews around-the-world.

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This post was written by David Niu

David is the Founder and CEO of TINYpulse. After being burnt out from his previous company, he decided pack up all of his belongings and go on a careercation with his family. Through that journey, he met with numerous leaders around the world that taught him about work culture, employee engagement, and what it takes to be an inspirational leader.

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